Megaloads = mega comments

Transportation department has received hundreds of written comments from throughout state on proposed shipments

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Sunday, August 8, 2010
The e-mails and letters have been pouring into the Idaho Transportation Department. They have come from places like Cascade, Viola, Bunchgrass Farm and Big Cedar Road and almost universally voice concerns about huge rigs potentially bound for U.S. Highway 12 that would consume two lanes.

Some of the comments reflect adamant opposition. “Anyone who is even considering allowing such a thing is out of their mind,” wrote Sharon Cousins of Viola. “Please do not allow this horrible thing to happen. That scenic little highway is one of the jewels of this state and should be allowed to stay that way.”

Cousins was one of about 300 people who shared their thoughts with ITD about proposals it’s considering from two companies in a comment period that ended in the middle of July.

Four gigantic loads for one company, Conoco Phillips, have already been hauled to the Port of Lewiston from Japan and are waiting for resurfacing on half of the Arrow Bridge to be done before they continue on to Billings, Mont. (See accompanying story.)

Imperial Oil, which is owned mostly by ExxonMobil, wants to take more than 200 loads of mining equipment over Highway 12 on its way to the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada. The biggest of the loads will weigh more than seven times a normal tractor-trailer load and be more than twice as long.

The weight will be distributed over 112 tires on 14 axles, each of which has its own steering and braking system. “The force each wheel exerts on the highway is less than that of a conventional semi-trailer,” said Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial Oil.

ITD officials have indicated drivers will have to follow special rules, such as pulling over every 15 minutes to allow traffic to clear and only traveling at night.

In spite of those assurances many people, including Sandra Carter of Boise, still have pointed questions. “Do you think that the proposed loads weighing (about) 580,000 pounds and (more than) 200 feet in length will not damage the roadway surfaces and easements? ….When are you and our other elected officials ever going to choose what is best for and respect the people of Idaho over foreign (companies) profits?”

While the majority of comments ITD received reflected concerns or opposition, about 30 favored the trucking proposal. “I support this and everyone I know (supports) this,” wrote Myron Calkins of Lewiston. “The not in my backyard (opposition) doesn’t work for me. We all have to give being we are a petroleum based nation.”

The Lewiston Chamber of Commerce also recently went on record backing the idea, although its position wasn’t part of the ITD comments. “The chamber supports the potential for expansion and living wage job retention and creation at the Port of Lewiston, as well as the trickle down economic impact in the community represented by the support staff needed for the project,” according to a chamber news release.

The statement was recommended to the organization by its government affairs and resource committee, which is co-chaired by Jerry Klemm, a Lewiston port commissioner. Two other groups the Port of Lewiston has ties to, Valley Vision in Lewiston and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, expressed support in the formal comment period.

Aside from individual comments, ITD received a petition with 1,704 signatures. That petition read in part that the transports would “impede the travel of locals and visitors for pleasure, recreation, business and emergencies; potentially damage the road and bridges and accrue costs to American taxpayers; (and) pose a serious threat to a world-class fishery and wildlife corridor.”

U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, is the only state, federal, city or county elected official to formally enter a comment, according to ITD. Minnick has asked for more research of the idea and at least one more public meeting without coming down on either side of the issue.

How the feelings of citizens will affect the process is not clear. ITD has issued no permits for any of the oversized loads to pass. The agency will post its responses to the comments online by the end of the month, said Mel Coulter, a spokesman for ITD. The state transportation department appears to be standing by its stance that it can only deny the loads if it finds technical reasons U.S. Highway 12 or its bridges couldn’t handle them.

Environmental groups, however, have contested that stance, claiming they found no basis for it in Idaho code.

“We’re analyzing all those responses,” Coulter said, “to see if any of them have a direct bearing on if the loads could be shipped safely.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.